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Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care via The New York Times

RICHLAND, Wash. — When Tim Snider arrived on Enewetak Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to clean up the fallout from dozens of nuclear tests on the ring of coral islands, Army officers immediately ordered him to put on a respirator and a bright yellow suit designed to guard against plutonium poisoning.

A military film crew snapped photos and shot movies of Mr. Snider, a 20-year-old Air Force radiation technician, in the crisp new safety gear. Then he was ordered to give all the gear back. He spent the rest of his four-month stint on the islands wearing only cutoff shorts and a floppy sun hat.

“I never saw one of those suits again,” Mr. Snider, now 58, said in an interview in his kitchen here as he thumbed a yellowing photo he still has from the 1979 shoot. “It was just propaganda.”

Today Mr. Snider has tumors on his ribs, spine and skull — which he thinks resulted from his work on the crew, in the largest nuclear cleanup ever undertaken by the United States military.

Roughly 4,000 troops helped clean up the atoll between 1977 and 1980. Like Mr. Snider, most did not even wear shirts, let alone respirators. Hundreds say they are now plagued by health problems, including brittle bones, cancer and birth defects in their children. Many are already dead. Others are too sick to work.

The military says there is no connection between these illnesses and the cleanup. Radiation exposure during the work fell well below recommended thresholds, it says, and safety precautions were top notch. So the government refuses to pay for the veterans’ medical care.

Congress long ago recognized that troops were harmed by radiation on Enewetak during the original atomic tests, which occurred in the 1950s, and should be cared for and compensated. Still, it has failed to do the same for the men who cleaned up the toxic debris 20 years later. The disconnect continues a longstanding pattern in which the government has shrugged off responsibility for its nuclear mistakes.

[…]

A report by The New York Times last spring found that veterans were exposed to plutonium during the cleanup of a 1966 accident involving American hydrogen bombs in Palomares, Spain. Declassified documents and a recent study by the Air Force said the men might have been poisoned, and needed new testing.

But in the months since the report, nothing has been done to help them.

[…]

Hundreds of the troops, though, almost all now in their late 50s, have found one another on Facebook and discovered remarkably similar problems involving deteriorating bones and an incidence of cancer that appears to be far above the norm.

A tally of 431 of the veterans by a member of the group shows that of those who stayed on the southernmost island, where radiation was low, only 2 percent reported having cancer. Of those who worked on the most contaminated islands in the north, 20 percent reported cancer. An additional 34 percent from the contaminated islands reported other health problems that could be related to radiation, like failing bones, infertility and thyroid problems.

[…]

Budget Cuts and the Cleanup

Between 1948 and 1958, 43 atomic blasts rocked the tiny atoll — part of the Marshall Islands, which sit between Hawaii and the Philippines — obliterating the native groves of breadfruit trees and coconut palms, and leaving an apocalyptic wreckage of twisted test towers, radioactive bunkers and rusting military equipment.

Four islands were entirely vaporized; only deep blue radioactive craters in the ocean remained. The residents had been evacuated. No one thought they would ever return.

[…]

All troops were issued a small film badge to measure radiation exposure, but government memos note that humid conditions destroyed the film. Failure rates often reached 100 percent.

Every evening, Air Force technicians scanned workers for plutonium particles before they left Runit. Men said dozens of workers each day had screened positive for dangerous levels of radiation.

[…]

“A lot of guys can’t survive anymore, financially,” said Jeff Dean, 60, who piloted boats loaded with contaminated soil.

Mr. Dean developed cancer at 43, then again two years later. He had to give up his job as a carpenter as the bones in his spine deteriorated. Unpaid medical bills left him $100,000 in debt.

“No one seems to want to admit anything,” Mr. Dean said. “I don’t know how much longer we can wait, we have guys dying all the time.”

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